Days after Ryan Hilinski visited South Carolina as one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks in the class of 2018, he told his oldest brother Kelly that the university felt like the place to be.
“Okay,” Kelly said (via 247Sports). “Well, let’s wait until we talk to Ty.”
Tyler Hilinski, the middle brother in the family, was four years old than Ryan. He was a quarterback at Washington State when he committed suicide, three months before Ryan visited South Carolina. A postmortem evaluation of his brain revealed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative illness linked to football and repeated blows to the head.
Ryan and Kelly went to the lighthouse where they spread their brother’s ashes and asked what he thought of South Carolina.
“I got a yes from him and I knew from that moment going forward that it was the place and he’s behind me 100 percent,” Ryan Hilinski said. “That’s when I knew it’s the place for me.”
On Saturday, Ryan Hilinski’s college career for the Gamecocks could hardly have gotten off to a better start. With starter Jake Bentley injured and out for the home opener, Coach Will Muschamp handed the freshman Hilinski the ball to start for his first game on campus against Charleston Southern.
He completed his first 11 passes for 101 yards. He didn’t miss a receiver until the Gamecocks’ fifth drive, which came in the beginning of the second quarter. He also ran for a four-yard touchdown during that stretch.
He came back to hit three his next four throws for 96 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which was a picture-perfect 60-yard strike.
He pointed to the sky to celebrate the touchdown, then threw up three fingers in honor of the number Tyler wore at Washington State and that he wears at South Carolina. The crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium chanted “Let’s Go Ryan!” as the quarterback ran downfield to meet his teammates in the end zone.
Hilinski’s mother, Kym, told the SEC Network during the broadcast that she caught herself cheering for Tyler instead of Ryan during the game Saturday.
“I stepped back and I said, `Oh my god, I can’t believe I just yelled that.' But I think they were both out there on the field today, right?” she said. “It was Ryan and Tyler, and Tyler was his angel on the field. I hope he’s with him for the rest of this season and the next few seasons.”
Ryan Hilinski didn’t speak publicly after the game, in keeping with South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp’s policy that freshmen can’t talk to reporters.
He finished with 282 yards on 24 of 30 passing, those two scores through the air and one more on the ground. South Carolina dismantled Charleston Southern, 72-10.
“The guy can handle what we’re doing,” Muschamp said of Hilinski afterward (via ESPN). “He’s extremely bright.”
The Gamecocks will need a lot more out of Hilinski in the games to come. Bentley could be lost for the season with a foot injury he suffered in the season opener against North Carolina, a 24-20 loss.
South Carolina draws No. 2 Alabama next week, and has to face No. 3 Georgia and No. 11 Florida in back-to-back weeks in October. USC ends the season with rival No. 1 Clemson, a game that could determine their bowl eligibility. It will be a tall task for Hilinski, a true freshman, to navigate the team through it.
Muschamp said the personal tragedy his quarterback endured has him prepared.
“It makes you grow up very quickly,” Muschamp said.